Sunday Insight: Fire in the sky

By Philippa Stevenson

A fire crane (bottom right) is dwarfed by a cool store fire at Tamahere, south of Hamilton. Photo / James Madelin
A fire crane (bottom right) is dwarfed by a cool store fire at Tamahere, south of Hamilton. Photo / James Madelin

Tamahere Model Country School's Pumpkin Night last weekend was a delight. Families turned out at the Waikato school's yearly fundraiser to be awed by giant pumpkins and the kids' creativity (and no doubt parents) who had fashioned quirky artworks from a range of vegetables. Children rode horses and small, four-wheel motorbikes, jumped on bouncy castles and everyone ate their way through pumpkin soup, pumpkin cookies, burgers and sausages - all paid for with pumpkin money.

Good, family fun. But on Pumpkin Night in 2008, New Zealand etched another name - "the Tamahere fire" - on its roll of tragedy. Another son, husband, father and friend, firefighter Derek Lovell, was added to the list of those who went out to work one day and never came home. Another community was scarred as a gas-fuelled explosion ripped through a rural coolstore and burned for seven days.

It would be comforting to think something had come from the Tamahere fire to prevent such a tragedy from happening again; that it would be safer for people to go about their lives. Possibly it has.

Possibly the slack regulatory system that effectively allowed a bomb to be primed in an industrial plant, metres from a school and homes, has been tightened.

Possibly the court-ordered fines and the recommendations of the Fire Service, a Labour Department investigation, the Institution of Professional Engineers, the refrigeration industry and the coroner have been heeded and actioned.

I fear not. I fear the raft of people eager to make change, and the reluctant who were being pressured to do so, have faltered or been overwhelmed. I live across from the Icepak company's site. I felt the blast, watched the horror unfold, met and wept for some of those most deeply affected and did my best to work for change, with many others, to have something good come from the awfulness.

Over five years I have watched and, in some cases, attended court hearings, investigations, and inquiries. The coroner's findings were delivered last March.

In the meantime, bigger tragedies struck in quick succession. The first Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, the Pike River mining disaster taking 29 men in November that year, and the second Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 that cost 185 lives.

Even in fatal tragedies, there is a hierarchy. The Tamahere fire got bumped: lost or forgotten in the places where changes happen; in the mayhem that overwhelmed a small country and an even smaller bureaucracy's ability to respond, to remedy, to right.

So how are the wounded, the bereaved, their families and the medical people who were on the scene in seconds? What's happened to the company, Icepak, and its engineer Warren Cook; to the blasted piece of landscape, once a series of coolstores that became an inferno, and later a pile of twistedmetal and smouldering, stinking lumps of cheese and venison? What happened to all those well-meaning recommendations?

Barbara Thorburn is a quietly spoken, frail 86-year-old who has known far too much
tragedy. She has borne the deaths of her first husband, her youngest son and, five years ago this week, her attentive middle son, Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell.

Her Whangamata home, which Derek helped build and where she lives with second husband Lionel, was designed with grandchildren in mind. But visits are rare. Her eldest son's family lives in France. Derek's widow, Milli, is building a new life in Tauranga with foster daughter, Tiffany, 7, but just three weeks old when first brought to see her grandmother by a doting father.

"That was when I really knew what a fine man he was," she says. "He was so gentle, so good with her."

Behind her gentle exterior Thorburn is fighting mad. She wishes for the means to personally hold people to account for her son's death. "I would have taken a civil case against them if I could."

Failing that, she sought justice from Hamilton Coroner Peter Ryan. "I wrote and asked him to please not let my son's death be in vain," she says. "He ignoredme."

The coroner's careful findings and seven recommendations could not fill the void in amother's heart.

Derek's firefighter mates are disenchanted, too, with the penalties meted out by District Court Judge Robert Spear to Icepak and Warren Cook under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. Icepak and its director Wayne Grattan were fined a total of $67,200; Cook was fined $56,200. Between them they were ordered to pay $270,000 compensation, to be shared between Milli Lovell and the seven injured firemen. "Those guys got off lightly," says Denis Wells.Merv Neil agrees.

I meet the two men again at Wells' home, west of Hamilton. All seven injured firefighters are back at work fulltime. Six - Neil, Wells, Cameron Grylls, Adrian Brown, Alvan Walker and David Beanland - are "on the trucks"; Brian Halford is a volunteer support officer.

The worst injured, big Merv, had burns to 73 per cent of his body and nearly lost his sight. Everyone describes himas remarkable.

Five years ago, while Wells and Brown waited inside an Icepak plant room listening to the hissing of leaking gas, Beanland went to get a spanner to tighten the leaking pipe. There were no signs to warn them of the hazards of the highly flammable gas. Few outside the coolstore company knew it had been installed into a leaky, unsuitable system in unprecedented quantities.

According to Labour Department investigators, the fresh air that came in with the firefighters and their movements stirred up the gas that had been pooling in the room for hours. It rose, met an unprotected switchboard and ignited into a blast that felled the men inside and outside the room and was felt for miles around.

Neil returned to work on Christmas Day 2010. In his matter-of-fact approach to his long, painful recovery, he describes turning up to his first house fire since the tragedy.

"I saw flames coming out of the door and thought 'This will be interesting'. Everyone was saying 'Will you be all right?' and I said, 'Just give me the reel'."

Neil seems more scarred on the outside than the inside. He was a reluctant participant in the counselling provided by the Fire Service. He and Wells reflect more on the $600 hourly fee they believe was paid to their psychoanalyst thanon their innermost thoughts.

They've been asked how they could return towork after such horror. "It's our job," they say as one.

Wells, who lost significant hearing from the blast, adds: "I've been 40 years in the job. It's the first time I was hurt."

Wells fought to return just six months after the disaster, firmly rejecting the dreaded "light duties" and undertaking lengthy psychological testing to prove he was mentally fit to go back on the fire trucks.

Will they mark this year's anniversary? "It's just like a birthday," says Neil. "We'll probably have to shout morning tea."

Milli Lovell has also moved, to Tauranga "for a whole new life". She has been studying for a Bachelor of Education, but is taking off the current university semester to think about
changing to adegree in psychology. Before the fire she was "just a mum", she says. "Derek and I had planned for me to never work again. That all changed."

Rob Frengley attended this year's Pumpkin Night just as he did five years ago. The Waikato Hospital clinical director of critical care was one of the Tamahere school parents
with ideal medical credentials to be on the scene. He attended to Derek Lovell a few minutes after the blast and remains saddened by his death.

It's doubtful others would have survived if not for the immediate, expert care of doctors and nurses who make their homes in Tamahere, close to Waikato Hospital.

It brought the community together, Frengley says.

One thing is outstanding: "We're now waiting to see what gets built on the Icepak site. I don't think anything will." One coolstore escaped the inferno and remains on the blasted, weedy land near State Highway 1. Rumours circulate that the remaining coolstore
will be shifted to one of Icepak's other sites. It stays stubbornly put.

It's a blight on the landscape but it's harmless. And Icepak managing director Wayne Grattan vowed never to use themoney-saving, environmentally friendly but highly dangerous propane refrigerant (also known as hydrocarbon, natural refrigerant, LPG and HyChill -50) in any coolstore again.

So, can we rest easy in our beds again, in a country where coolstores dot town and country, from supermarkets and shopping malls to meat, dairy and fruit warehouse complexes?

"No," says Robert Mannes, president of the Institute of Refrigeration, Heating & Air Conditioning Engineers (IRHACE). "My biggest fear isn't that we could have another rogue [operator] like Warren Cook," he says. "I don't think that will happen in that format again."

"I think what's going to happen is hydrocarbons will become more prevalent in industry simply because of climate change and the move to natural refrigerants. And you are going to get a refrigeration engineer going to a site and he's going to blow himself up."

Ignorance, the growing complexity of gases and plant design, lack of training, regulation and respect for safety - all plague the refrigeration industry, by its own admission.

Eighteen months ago, the institute's former president Brian Jackson described to the coroner an unregulated industry dogged by cowboys who could stick the title refrigeration engineer on a van and go into the installation business.

It was"disgraceful" there were no standards similar to the Building Act for people installing refrigeration systems and it was worrying that there had been no co-ordinated push for safety, he said.

Five of the coroner's seven recommendations were directed at IRHACE and its sister organisation, the Climate Control Companies Association.

Both organisations agreed with the coroner that an industry-led registration scheme was required but, says Mannes, "unfortunately, without the backing of government and a regulatory frame work we will not be able to do this."

He's met twice with Labour Department officials but progress is slow. "They've really dropped the ball with us at themoment because they're all focused on Pike River. We've gone back to being poor cousins again."

That hierarchy again. Without doubt many people worked very hard in the wake of this shocking tragedy. New measures have been introduced ranging from how new coolstores are designed, to the way the Fire Service equips its staff, to how it and councils monitor hazardous industry in rural areas.

But not enough has changed. A firefighter may not die next time. Inevitably, someone else will. Five years on that's our only certainty.

- Herald on Sunday

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